For people worried about the feminising effect of oestrogen-like chemicals in the water there is now a modern-day equivalent of the canary in the coal mine: a genetically modified fish in a bowl.
Male fish exposed to oestrogen have delayed sperm development and grow smaller testes. Some industrial chemicals, such as bisphenol A, mimic oestrogen, but little is known about how the effects of different oestrogen-like chemicals add up in water.
To find out, Xueping Chen and colleagues at Vitargent, a biotechnology company in Hong Kong, have created a genetically engineered fish that glows green when it is exposed to oestrogen-like chemicals. Chen’s team took the green fluorescent protein gene from jellyfish and spliced it into the genome of the medaka fish, Oryzias melastigma, next to a gene that detects oestrogen. Chemicals that have oestrogen-like activity cause the fish to express the modified gene, making them glow.
When the team tested the fish at eight sites around Hong Kong, they found that some chemicals that showed weak or no oestrogenic activity, including UV filters used in sunscreen, had combined in water to amplify or create an oestrogenic effect. The work is as yet unpublished.
William Price of the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia, warns the approach does not detect a biological response.